Couldn’t get much further away from the candy-coated romanticism of Baz Luhrman’s Australia than this.

The Proposition came out to rave reviews in 2005 and chances are, if you’re any kind of movie person, you’ve heard of it. I can, however, count how many people I know who’ve actually seen it on one hand. It’s definitely worth seeing, especially if you like your Westerns bleak, Australian, and about as grim and gritty (and I do mean gritty, this shit is caked in grit) as possible. It also helps if you liked The Road as this film has a similar aesthetic as it should given that John Hillcoat directed both. Don’t like movies much, though? Okay, how about music? Yeah? Well, Nick Cave wrote this motherfucker. That’s right. If you aren’t interested in all I’ve told you and/or haven’t heard of Nick Cave then stop reading this and go listen to some Grinderman. Or better yet, watch The Proposition and then listen to some Grinderman.

Anyway, The Proposition is about civilization. It’s also about fidelity to family, to law, and to marriage. It’s also about the interconnectedness of violent men. So it has that existentialism that the best Westerns at least flirt with. It goes some bizarre places, too, with the eldest brother Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) playing a force of nature, a terrifyingly brutal but intelligent and even poetic man who seems to be such a monster in reaction to the world itself, a considered yet psychopathic disconnect from the bonds of family, law, and faith that others wrap around themselves for protection from as harsh and unforgiving setting as colonial Australia. Arthur may be the best character in the film, but it’s a close race with middle brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Cpt. Stanley (Ray Winstone) who employs extreme tactics in an effort to corral these brothers and ultimately to symbolically civilize an uncivilized land.

The Burns brothers. They are not cuddly outlaws but true misanthropes.

The plot hinges completely on the conflict between existential impulses, represented by Charlie’s decision about what to do with the devil’s bargain Stanley gives him. Charlie is given a proposition (see what they did there?): go out and track down Arthur Burns who has proven impossible for the authorities to catch. Once you find him, kill him. Or we hang your kid brother on Christmas Day which means you have nine days. Stanley’s gamble works enough to get Charlie out looking, but whether or not he really has it in him to one brother to save another is the focus here. He is pulled in different directions, occupying a sort of middle ground between what Arthur and Stanley independently represent. Amidst that is his own personal sense of morality and his loyalty to family which is caught against Arthur’s apparent madness.

That the world constantly makes this whole experience more brutal externally than it even is internally adds a level of reality that suggests the underlying nihilism of the universe, a nihilism embodied by Arthur Burns.

Danny Huston is almost unrecognizable, doing the best work I’ve ever seen him do.

All three actors are transcendent, doing career-best work. Pearce plays Charlie as a man of few words. All the acting is expressive, gestural, and Pearce sells a bad man who has just enough humanity left to draw a line through his brother’s chaos.I believe this may have been the second Guy Pearce film I saw, after Memento, and it completely solidified him for me. I make an effort to see anything he’s in, though he takes mostly smaller roles in high-profile or critically-acclaimed stuff like The Hurt Locker or Animal Kingdom. This was probably my first experience with Ray Winstone, too, who has gone on to win a lot of cred for his work in The Departed, Sexy Beast, and even Beowulf. Danny Huston has had less of an impact on me as an actor, The Proposition being the primary evidence that the man is a master actor and not just a British character actor who seems to pop up everywhere. He plays the kind of villain, if there are villains in this movie, who you want to understand. He’s charismatic in his musings, his affections, and even his simple and alien code of conduct.

The Proposition is largely a character study, it’s success completely depends on the intensity and authenticity of these performances. They are all hard men at different places on a spectrum between true nihilism and the adherence, maybe without hope, to making sense of life so that order and civilization might be maintained.

The cast is rounded out by Emily Watson, playing Capt. Stanley’s wife, who he will do anything to protect, and she is always fucking excellent.  We also see John Hurt and David Wenham in secondary roles. Wenham is great as the single-minded British bureaucrat who is tested by the true violence required to promote law and order. It’s a great contrast to the other characters, really, and one of his first post-The Lord of the Rings roles.

Their marriage is fucked up and touching.

The cinematography and music are also remarkable. The arid landscape of Australia is just familiar enough to transport us to the Western mood. They are also strange enough, as are the locals, to keep us constantly off guard which the movie exploits constantly. There are many sudden shifts, less plot twists and more spikes of cosmic misfortune that underline the aforementioned nihilism. These almost always happen unexpectedly which adds to the overall despair of the movie.

Its bleakness may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely mine. I like my tea with a little sand, a little blood, and a coaster made of equal parts betrayal and brutality.

Sort of a defining shot for these two.